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Weaving the World _Part One

Human “Nature” and the Theory of Adaptive Cycles – 

Part One of this post was written as part of the Master program in Urban Sustainability at Antioch University Los Angeles. I imagined a conversation between the Post-war Marxist critic Raymond Williams and the Marina Alberti, an urban design professor at the University of Washington who applies complex systems thinking to urban eco-sytems. Click here for Part Two

I am meeting with Raymond Williams and Marina Alberti at the concrete picnic tables atop Mt. Hollywood. Mt. Hollywood is the crest of Griffith Park, one of the largest municipal parks in the world, and a crucial refuge for my wife and I since we moved to Los Angeles in the early 1990s. These hills are vitally alive. We’ve seen them shift and change with fires, floods, earthquakes – the whole SoCal array of environmental stressors. Visually, the park is a chaotic tangle of the natural and the manmade, marked by crumbling roads, cracked drainage ditches and culverts, looping power lines and grafitti-ed water tanks. The park also includes a multitude of jackrabbits, mule deer, owls, coyotes, hawks, rattlesnakes and pebbled, darting lizards. Latino families, elderly Asian speed walkers in shaded visors, amorous gay ramblers, and members of every other ethnic and social grouping travel the park’s roads and trails daily. The result is a dynamic, complex array of human and “natural” systems.

Williams, Alberti and I sit and look out across the Los Angeles basin and talk about the trajectory of history as it pertains to issues of sustainability. The view from the crest is panoramic, with vistas South toward the Catalina Islands, and then East to the smog banks that lie close against the distant San Gabriels. But we are not here just to enjoy the view.  Williams and Alberti have joined me to discuss my notion that ecology’s four stages of adaptive cycles – rapid growth, conservation, collapse and renewal – can be applied to psychological systems and processes, as well as to sociological and natural ones. If my idea is valid, I ask them, pointing to the city below, might it then be possible to construct a “unified theory” that elegantly explains the entire set of processes that have transformed the Los Angeles basin from sparsely populated semi-desert ranch land to a sprawling metropolis, within little more than a single human lifetime.

Williams opens the discussion by explaining how my idea about adaptive cycles and human psychology joins a long effort to reintegrate our thinking about man and nature. He goes on to review how man, eager to uncover the laws that govern natural systems, split off the idea of nature from that of God. The strange effect of this split was that Western man, in his ideas about himself, became progressively alienated from his own nature. “Most earlier ideas of nature had included, in an integral way, ideas of human nature,” Williams states, quoting himself. I suggest that the Tongva Indians who inhabited this region before our arrival would have found our habit of reifying the “environment” into a thing that needs to be defended or exploited to be a very eccentric view. Whether or not this holds true in the particular case of the Tongva, Williams responds, the salient issue has to do with how we relate to our own “nature.” To what degree are the forces driving unsustainable urban development manifestations of basic psychological dynamics such as ego development and alienation? Do we “reify” and split off from our own “nature” in the same way that, at the cultural level, we have separated from the environment? What would it mean to heal this inner split?

I ask Alberti for her response to these ideas. She and her partner Marzluff have described how urban ecosystems “consist of several interlinked subsystems – social, economic, institutional, and ecological.” Conspicuously absent from the list is the subsystem of individuals as psychological beings. And yet elsewhere Alberti and Marzluff have discussed the crucial importance “feedback mechanisms” between human decision makers and ecological processes, each informing and shaping the other. On the face of it, Alberti sees no reason why psychological well being can’t be defined in terms of “equilibrium,” “resilience” and “innovative response to crises.” But, she admits, the issue of psychology is problematic. Value statements about things like “well being” lead naturally toward prescriptive norms, and the specter of coercion begins to raise its head. Science is typically viewed as a refuge from this danger, a realm of fact, with values directed toward the separate realm of religion. But after nearly a century of scientific research into psychological dynamics, perhaps it would be possible to define a set of “green” psychological (or even neurological) factors in a pragmatic, empirical mode that doesn’t spin off in the direction of values. We at least can all agree that the resilience of the city spreading out at our feet would be enhanced by an understanding of the psychological systems that are helping to drive its continued development.

Given the recent midterm elections in the US, Williams is more pessimistic. Deep-seated psychological tendencies would certainly need to change before we could make a meaningful shift in the urban landscape toward sustainability. But the sheer historical momentum of coercive social relations leave Williams feeling skeptical that this is even a remote possibility. It’s all fine to discuss such ideas in the abstract, but real psychological opposition only manifests when there’s the threat of actual changes in who owns and controls which resources on a material level. The near certainty of environmental collapse, for example, has only fueled the determination of oligarchic forces in the US to darken the public mind with sophisticated disinformation and cognitive dissonance strategies. I ask Williams again about the four stages, and whether they relate in any way to the dialectical materialism of Marxist theory, where history proceeds by huge reversals, thesis and antithesis colliding always toward new syntheses, the entire process governed by social conditions. Progressives seem often to assume we are en route to a disruptive and traumatic collapse, and that, given our attachment to comfort and stability, deliberative processes will only take us so far. Who’s to say, however, that we won’t look back twenty years from now and discover that the “let ‘em eat cake” conservative intransigence of 2010 ended up energizing the movement to revise corporate law, unleashing a new era of progressive policy innovation?

While not exactly optimistic on this score, Alberti finds it interesting to think about resilience in terms of psychological and cultural analogues. What defines the “resilience” of an individual psyche as it relates, for example, to habits of consumption? What, on the level of individual psychology, echoes the “basin of attraction around a stable state?” Does the degree to which an individual psyche can tolerate alteration before “reorganizing around a new set of structures and processes” pertain in any meaningful way to sustainability? I point out how many of the cutting-edge green building initiatives originate today in Germany. Only 60 years ago Germany had been reduced to a field of rubble. Remade along with Germany’s infrastructure were the psychological paradigms that govern the Germans’ basic attitudes toward consumption and social justice. How much psychological resilience would be required by a similar shift in American sensibilities, and how might this resilience be cultivated? We need to understand how the demands of such an effort compare to the demands of coping with the environmental calamities that otherwise confront us.

Returning to my question about Marxism, Wiliams points out that the science of complex systems is so consistent with dialectics that it almost seems like an extension of it. He quotes the influential biologist Stephen Jay Gould about how Hegel’s laws concerning “interpenetrating opposites” and the “transformation of quantity to quality” line up closely with central tenants of the new science. The whole notion of a paradigm shift, where small quantitative changes accumulate in a stable system until finally forcing a rapid transition to a new state, arises from basic Hegelian dialectics. As Williams dryly points out, if there’s nothing new in complexity theory there’s little reason to expect policies that grow out of it to deliver new results. The task then becomes one of optimizing results given what’s possible. What simple actions can be taken, for example, to move us, even incrementally, toward a new paradigm defined by sustainability? It’s interesting to imagine visiting Mt. Hollywood another lifetime from now and looking out at a new kind city, one that balances economic dynamism with ecological viability. On a psychological level, what would be required to make that vision a reality? Or, to put it another way, is there any way to gain significant control over our urban future without an internal shift of this kind?

We discuss this further, Alberti suggesting that one feature setting complexity theory apart from dialectics is the concept of emergent form – how simple processes can generate new systems at much higher levels of complexity. There seems to be an adaptive capacity built into these emergent systems – they naturally seek to preserve, enhance and propagate themselves. Clearly, we’re back in the cycle here of growth, conservation, collapse and renewal that could usefully be applied to the processes by which we assemble our sense data, memory, emotion and thought into a public identity engaging in the social arena. Likewise, a truly sustainable city could turn out to be an “emergent form” produced by a multitude of small behavioral changes combined with larger paradigm shifts gathering force and complexity over the next few decades.

As a scientist, Alberti views elegance to be a feature of truth. She quotes the Nobel-winning physicist Murray Gell-Mann to support the idea that symmetry across different scales tends to be a reliable indicator of real advances in our understanding of scientific laws. In terms of ecology, symmetry would suggest the same basic dynamics are at work in psychological processes of individual actors as in the “natural” processes that govern fluxes and pools in urban areas like LA. In other words, we encounter the fundamental dynamics of over-consumption and environmental degradation as we navigate our lives and our relationships as psychological beings on a daily level. The advantage of arriving at some kind of clarity about this kind of “symmetry” is that steady, pragmatic steps could then be made toward a qualitative shift in the direction of sustainability.

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